During the electoral campaigning period, it is common for all the political parties to mobilize their resources in order to promote their policy platforms and garner popular support. However, this has also included mobilizing children to support their campaigning. This is illegal under both the Constitution and the Penal Code of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (RTDL), which consider children under 17 to be minors and criminally liable from the age of 16, and furthermore that those under 17 cannot vote, participate in the electoral process or join political parties.
During the campaigning period for the Presidential Election, political parties were known to have included children in their campaigning convoys, when moving between campaign locations. Political party clothing and pamphlets were also worn and distributed respectively by these children. Apart from breaching the Penal Code and Constitution, this presents a risk for the safety and security of minors involved in these activities, due to both potential traffic incidents and outbreaks of violence that may occur during the campaigning period. Fighting between minors involved with Martial Arts Groups (MAG’s) has been increasing recently, with videos of such fights being uploaded on Facebook serving as further provocation.
Although the State has prohibited the activities of MAG’s, some political parties have been known to recruit MAG members, in order to provoke and intimidate their political opponents through the use of threats and violence. Such an activity took place during the start of the Presidential Election campaigning period on March 3, 2017. There was a confrontation between supporters of Presidential candidates Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo and Antonio da Conceição “Kalohan” in Raikotu, Dili. This confrontation saw three people injured, and damage to vehicles and property. The PNTL statement on this incident indicated that one of the injured was a 14-year old child.
The majority of MAG recruitment involves minors, who are told by their recruiters that they’re not criminally liable and won’t be arrested by the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL). However, according to a declaration by the Ministry of Justice in April 2017, around 22 children are currently in prison in Becora and Gleno. This raises two concerns, namely if these are children under the age of 16 and not criminally liable, and additionally that they are imprisoned alongside adults. These children should not be imprisoned alongside adults, and instead a rehabilitation center should be established for both their protection and rehabilitation.
The involvement of children in the campaigning period before elections has been commonplace and ongoing in Timor-Leste. Fundasaun Mahein’s (FM) concern is that these children will be negatively influenced by their experience participating in the campaigning period, and that their safety and security could be undermined in a political environment that is still maturing.
Finally, FM recommends that STAE, CNE and the Commission on the Rights of Children inform and emphasize to political parties that the involvement of children in their campaigning is not only illegal but unethical, as it endangers the lives of children, established poor norms for their future political participation and undermines the legitimacy of the political process. Regulations regarding campaigning must be adhered too, and irregularities prevented for a safe, secure and democratic National Election.